As Italy swings to the far right, Phil Vellender discusses a timely history of Italian fascism
Foot sets out his stall right from the start: “This is not a traditional history of Italian fascism. It tells the story of the 1920s and 1930s largely through the stories of real people – fascists, anti-fascists, socialists, communists, anarchists. Violence is a central theme. [….] Without violence, before and during the regime, fascism could never have come to power.”
The passing of time has served to sanitise the bloody legacy of fascism in Italy’s popular memory, a legacy still transmitted by simultaneously foregrounding the ‘modernising’ Mussolini (the trains ran on time, a host of impressive buildings erected, brought ‘order’, and so on) while distancing us from the ‘murderous Mussolini’, responsible for the bloodshed the movement he led unleashed (millions of deaths, routine torture, virulent antisemitism, the smashing of democracy).
The book opens with Foot’s great-grandmother witnessing disorder in early 20th century Bologna. He reports her later verdict on the regime: “Ah, the fascism! […] It was wonderful.” Foot’s account debunks such rose-tinted nostalgia, itself a tribute to the durability of the regime’s brilliantly constructed mythology, one which continues to colour Il Duce’s legacy to this day. Meticulously illustrated by exhaustive research, we see how fascist violence “brought something fundamentally new to the political scene: a militia party… This violence and its ramifications are ever present in the stories this book recounts.” Fascism’s roots lie partly in Italy’s political response to the Libyan colonial war of 1911-12 – that is, militarism and anti-militarism. However, it was the devastating trauma of the First World War which was to prove the decisive test for fascists. In short, your attitude to that war defined you in the eyes of fascist militants, who came to comprise the regime’s squadristi (gangs of thugs). Italy’s intervention in and conduct of the 1914-18 war was a catastrophe: vast numbers died through incompetence and poor preparation.
Authoritarian militarism and strident nationalism certainly fuelled fascism ideologically, but Foot amply demonstrates that it was the finance provided by wealthy landowners and company bosses, and the extremely reactionary politics they espoused, that both identified and prioritised the early targets of the fascist squadristi, whose exploits rightly receive sustained attention in this book. Initially fighting with anti-war leftists, the squadristi widened their activities and began to attack any manifestation of organised labour, be it rural (co-operatives) or urban (trade unions). They sacked and burned down the offices of socialist newspapers, beat up known left activists, attacked their homes and kidnapped trade unionists. Foot cites the graphic account of one such raid given in a speech by the socialist lawyer, Giacomo Matteotti: “There are 20, sometimes 100 of them… they torture [him] in a horrible way… then he is abandoned in the countryside, tied to a tree.”
Italy’s left experienced its high point during the ‘red years’ (1919 and 1920), which saw factories in Italy’s largest industrial centres (particularly Turin) seized and run by workers’ councils. Farms were taken over and turned into co-operatives by labourers. This period also saw a corresponding growth in fascist activity and organisation. Significantly, in the 1919 general election, the Socialist Party (SP) became the largest group in parliament while, despite wholesale violence and intimidation, no fascist was elected. It was at this moment that Mussolini – who, Foot reminds us, was at one time a prominent socialist, as well as the very successful, circulation-boosting editor of Avanti (the SP newspaper) – created his law and order party with money from landowners and industrialists. For Italian capitalists, he was a useful idiot. They entirely misunderstood his political agenda, as the German capitalists did Hitler’s. Fascists were to be their tool to smash the leftists, after which ‘normal service’ would be resumed. In fact, Mussolini’s fascist party was to rule from 1922-1943.
The fascist storming of Bologna’s Palazzo d’Accursio in November 1920, in the course of which 11 people were to die, was to provide a model for the future fascist violence focused on destroying Italy’s democratic institutions in 1921 and 1922. Foot defines 1922 as fascism’s ‘year zero’, adumbrating how democratic structures collapsed under the pressure of the squadristi operating with near complete impunity. Foot identifies the city of Cremona and the agricultural areas of Ravenna, where 92 co-operatives were located, as the sites of some of the worst fascist violence. In the former, fascists ignored the 40 duly-elected councillors; they did not recognise elections, with Roberto Farinacci, the local ras (fascist leader) declaring himself the 41st councillor (he hadn’t even stood). When asked who elected him, he replied, “I elected myself.” In response to the beating to death of Councillor Attilo Boldori, Farinacci responded, “His skull was weak.” In ‘year zero’, 281 councils were overthrown. By 1923, as in Bologna, the left usually did not bother to stand. By then, as Foot puts it, “election results and democracy had come up against fascist violence, and the latter had won”. The state’s forces of law and order looked the other way (or colluded in fascist crimes).
In Ravenna, in July 1922, their target was the very successful federation of co-operatives which owned and farmed over 15,000 acres of land and rented still more. They beat Nullo Baldini, who had played a leading role in creating the Ravenna co-operatives, burned down the organisation’s headquarters and then conducted an all-out attack on the homes of any socialists and republicans they could find. These attacks continued and, by the time they were over, this movement of workers had been destroyed and the local landowners had consolidated their power once more.
Foot walks us through the streets and city squares where the worst of the bloodletting took place during fascism’s seizure of state power. However, the brutality, torture and persecutions were to continue throughout Mussolini’s rule. The regime rigorously settled its scores, even devoting considerable energy to tracking down opponents who had fled into exile. As important as the ‘domestic’ violence were the atrocities Mussolini visited upon Ethiopia in his failed attempt to create his vision of a ‘new Roman empire’, a vainglorious enterprise accompanied by appalling racist cruelty, which included the use of chemical weapons.
Having vanquished socialism (and the masons) by 1938, fascism required a new internal enemy. The shocking violence in Mussolini’s colonies, where fascist race laws were first trialled, was to be followed by a domestic war on the Jews, which Foot details from the point of view of both victims and perpetrators. One of the most significant features of the enduring mythology of Italian fascism was its supposed reluctance in disposing of the country’s 50,000-strong Jewish community. This myth, still promoted to this day, is systematically demolished in one of the book’s most powerful sections. Foot’s chosen methodology – recounting individual stories to lend weight to his narrative – is well illustrated here by the case of the suicide in Modena, in November 1938, of Angelo Fortunato Formiggini, an extraordinarily erudite and highly educated, seventh-generation Modenese-Jewish owner of an influential publishing house. Formiggini threw himself off the top of the Ghirlandina tower, the striking 86-metre-tall symbol of the city. Since the regime had total control of both press and the radio, Formiggini’s gesture against Mussolini’s antisemitic laws made little impact. Ironically, Formiggini had worked closely with the regime and supported Mussolini and was often to be seen “accompanying Il Duce to book fairs” in the 1930s. The regime had begun to press Formiggini regarding the ‘race’ of those working for his company. It seems this pressure, together with mounting financial problems, pushed him over the edge. This episode underlines the fact that, initially, fascism received widespread support, even from some in the Jewish community.
Although Foot clearly reserves the villain’s mask for Mussolini for the carnage he created, Blood and Power demonstrates he is by no means the only candidate. For Il Duce apart, it is probably King Victor Emmanuel III who receives Foot’s most scathing criticism. First, in 1922, the king signally failed to declare martial law, thus greenlighting the squadristi to proceed unhindered. Next, he installed Mussolini as prime minister, so signing off a de facto coup d’état. In reality, with just 35 deputies in parliament, fascism never enjoyed any democratic or constitutional basis whatsoever. Unsurprisingly, the king happily accepted the titles of Emperor of Abyssinia and King of Albania. However, as Foot notes, he saved his worst betrayal until last. Ensconced at his vast Pisan estates, at 10am on 5th September 1938, without the faintest hesitation, the king signed the regime’s antisemitic race laws, performing what Foot defines as “the most shameful act in the history of united Italy”. The case for a republic has probably never been made so powerfully, and that is precisely what Italians went on to vote for after the war.
It is difficult to imagine any review doing justice to the scope and ambition of Foot’s achievement here. Eminently readable, starkly cinematic and affecting by turns, Blood and Power is absolutely recommended reading in an era in which a new generation of ‘useful idiots’ has manifested itself and where, once again, democracy is finding itself under sustained attack.